Escaping in Plain Sight

Ellen Craft, who was born into slavery, successfully escaped alongside her husband while in disguise. Her appearance during her 1848 escape is portrayed in an 1860 engraving.

I’ve always claimed so much of our past never makes it into the history books. This is especially true for stories about slavery. This being Black History Month, a recently published book gives another example of the ingenuity of slaves.

William and Ellen Craft were a married couple, enslaved in Georgia but determined to escape their bondage. Wanting to start a family, they realized any children could be taken from them at any time and sold. So in1848 they formed a daring plan to escape to freedom.

They had one advantage: as the daughter of their master (think about that for a minute), Ellen was light-skinned enough to be able to pass for white. At times, she was even mistaken for a member of her master’s family. So during their flight, she would pose as her husband William’s owner,

But there were complications. First, a white woman travelling with a Black man would look suspicious. Second, as a slave she was never taught to read and write. Third, most fugitive slaves tried to escape under the cover of darkness; for that reason, the slave patrols were most vigilant at night.

So here was their plan — Ellen would disguise herself as a man, a plantation owner being accompanied by “his” personal slave. She would bandage her right arm, which would both give her an excuse not to sign any papers and provide a reason to travel (“he” was seeking medical attention). Finally, they would travel in broad daylight, in full view of the authorities.

And it worked! Despite some close calls, they eventually made it to Philadelphia, ultimately settling in Boston’s free Black community.

Were they safe? Not entirely, thanks to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. But you can read that part for yourself.

Their complete story is in the new book, Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom by Ilyon Woo.

An excellent summary is “This Woman Escaped Slavery by Hiding in Plain Sight—Disguised as a White Man” by Tucker C. Toole on the National Geographic website (

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